In a plot twist worthy of a crime novel, the New York Times reported on Thursday that the hard drives of a dead political strategist reveal that the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census was part of an alleged plot to help elect white Republicans.
The strategist, Thomas Hofeller, was a Republican known as “the Michelangelo of gerrymandering” for his work in creating partisan districts that benefited the GOP. Files on hard drives discovered by his daughter after his death showed that he wrote a 2015 study that found that adding a citizenship question to the census would lead to more Republican-friendly congressional maps..
Files on the drives also showed that he wrote the key portion of a draft letter that the Department of Justice used to maintain, dubiously, that the citizenship question was needed to help enforce the Voting Rights Act. The Times noted that “the disclosures represent the most explicit evidence to date that the Trump administration added the question to the 2020 census to advance Republican Party interests.”
These revelations will not surprise anyone who has followed ongoing legal wrangling over citizenship and the census. On this issue – which will affect the day-to-day lives of millions of Americans for years– the Trump administration has consistently acted in bad faith and with disregard for the integrity of the census.
Every 10 years since 1790, the census has counted all the people in the country. The 14th Amendment explicitly states that “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.” The word “citizen” does not appear in this provision. The framers’ intent was clear. Apportionment was to be based on a count of all persons – whether they were citizens or not.
The Trump administration says a citizenship question is needed to bolster the Voting Rights Act. Civil rights groups and Latino advocacy groups dispute this notion. They point to research showing that a citizenship question will depress the response rate of Latinos and immigrants, as many will opt out, fearful of revealing their immigration status to the government.
A bipartisan group of six former Census Bureau directors has warned that adding a citizenship question would harm the count. The bureau’s own experts estimate that 6.5 million people will not respond to the 2020 census if a citizenship question is on it.
In the lawsuits that resulted from the administration’s decision to add the citizenship question, we learned a few things: The decision was rushed by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in a political manner, according to a federal judge in New York. Another judge, in California, found that Ross had “ignored” federal law when he insisted on adding the question. And the Trump administration disregarded the advice of scientists at the Census Bureau (who opposed adding the question), in favor of conferring with immigration hardliner Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state, and former White House adviser Steve Bannon.
Now the Times has uncovered Thomas Hofeller’s pernicious influence in this process as well. His research found that adding a citizenship question would harm the political power of Latinos and would be “advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.”
Not only did he urge the administration to add the question, he helped cook up the pretext that it was being done to protect voting rights – never mind that the Trump administration has not pursued any cases to protect Hispanic voters. This shady episode further politicizes the census, which is supposed to better our communities, not make some of them invisible.
And consider that the public would likely not know about Hofeller’s involvement in the census question if his daughter had not found his hard drives and given them to an advocacy group, jokingly suggesting that it might find them helpful.
Even more worrisome: it is unclear whether news of Hofeller’s role in the citizenship question will have any impact on the Supreme Court at all. They have already heard oral arguments on the census case, and many court observers thought that the conservative majority seemed inclined to side with the Trump administration.
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It is a national disgrace that the Trump Administration appears to be using the census as a tool of voter suppression. No matter how the high court rules, there is now even more evidence that the citizenship question was a Republican attempt at a partisan power grab. That the Trump administration would follow Hofeller’s advice speaks to the disregard it has for the census, Latino voters – and our democracy.